Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?


I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Augustine, whiteness, alienation

From the intro to the OE translation book. On the trope of exile and how it enacts Augustine’s “region of unlikeness.” But madness in Charlottesville and moral turpitude in Washington got in there. Am wanting to think through how the poems, composed by white men before “whiteness” was a thing, still inform this thing we know now as “whiteness.” The poems hold some of the raw materials – patriarchal culture of violence and valour and stoicism; will to dominance; constraint of women and suppression of what’s thought feminine; default stance of fear and suspicion towards the unknown; I could go on. Add ships and maps and a thirst for wealth and stir.

But also in them I find – mindfulness and curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, values of restraint and moderation, a love of beauty, playfulness, and the thought that much in the sense world could be animate, with its own ways of thinking and feeling through.

Caught between wanting to diagnose a sickness, and celebrate an innocence.


From Unlikeness Is Us: “Vagrant Introduction”

Exile in these poems is the felt reality of unlikeness. Unlikeness aware of itself, studying itself, in conversation with itself, maybe working to transmute itself, or to accept itself, or maybe mired in itself in alert despair. But keenly aware of itself. Unlikeness not aware of itself is alienation. On the other edge of the country I call mine for now a node of alienated whiteness drove through a crowd yesterday and killed someone. His idiot crew had flags on pointy sticks and torches, pointy sticks.[1] These poems may be ancestors to those supremacist pricks. They’re not on the hook for them, I insist that, but they may provide clues to them. The loneliness in the Anglo heart, the character Western restlessness later takes in it, bold and practical, industrious, venal, unscrupulous, when the age of exploration and colonization starts, and how that goes for the others met – there are clues to that in these poems. Maybe also seeds of the grotesque absurdities of Anglo-Nordic pride as it beetles from the fringes of American life pretty much as I type into the White House bedroom. But that’s later. The poems are wakeful. They take Augustine to heart, they believe in his unlikeness. They take unlikeness in, estrangement from the astonishing felt tissue of the present and their own blooming singing rampant bodies, and that may be tragic error. It might be the tragic subject all these poems have in common. But they hold a wakeful engagement with their condition as it’s given them. So, exile, estrangement, but not alienation – they don’t shut down, they stay brave, eyes open, looking out, looking in. They are at the root of one of the world’s great traditions of interiority.


[1]. “When questioned about the rationale for Trump’s evenhandedness, the White House clarified that both the protesters and the counter-protesters had resorted to violence. This is notable in that the United States was once a country that did not see Nazis and those willing to fight them as morally equivalent. Aside from that, however, there were no images of anti-fascist protesters mowing down reactionaries with their cars.” – Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.


P.S.? I hate hate hate having that photo there. Like the smell of fresh shit in a kitchen drawer. To lessen it I’ll note that the douchebags are using for their grand display tiki torches of the sort used to repel mosquitos at family BBQs. Ride, warrior, ride. (Noted by Vinson Cunningham, also in The New Yorker.)

P.P.S.? Not that there’s anything wrong with mosquitos, shit, or a douche, in their places.

Vagrant introduction, first para

First paragraph of the intro to Unlikeness Is Us, a draft of it, what I been driving at these past days. Also doubles as a diversity statement. To my heterodox way of thinking anyway.


Ungelīc is ūs. Enigmatic, in the Old English, but it means something like “it’s different for us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To say rather “unlikeness is us” is to go after something uncanny in it—and in the poem it comes from and in all these poems—rather than the surface sense. By “uncanny” I mean something both familiar and strange, near and far, about these poems, that makes them, not scary, unsettling. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike,” and he meant something intimately known, then by choice forgotten, and now it’s come back to be known again, and there’s an inner shiver. Something true of you you’ve become absent or alien to and here it is at the door. It’s how these poems meet me anyway. They’ve always been with us but have we known how to read them? Unlikeness has always been us but do we how to be it? I sit writing in a whitish corner of America, 2017, summer, no clouds and no sun either. Corner of Canada adjacent, where I grew up, is burning. America is burning too, literally,[1] allegorically,[2] morally,[3] anagogically.[4]


[1]. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.

[2]. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).

[3]. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.

[4]. Reading oriented toward the future, eschatology, end times. Note the vanishing of the sun without clouds or night or an eclipse to explain it. Apocalyptic.


I have ADHD. Confirmed last week. Don’t know whether to cry or be glad. Lot of things fall into place. Including why this leap and not knowing whether it’s an overshare, how to tell.[5] I guess, if you can’t spill too much on a blog, where can you.

To everyone I’ve ever talked over, interrupted, I’m sorry. God but I am.


[5]. Good example of unlikeness though whatever else it is.


Image atop is from this article here, about adoption as dissimilitude, and the love of humans and God. Have only scanned it but looks intelligent, and moving, and pertinent to the next paragraph of my intro, which isn’t ready to post yet.

But here’s the bit from Augustine:

When I first knew you, you took me up, so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet one able to see it. You beat back my feeble sight, sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, and I trembled with love and awe. I found myself to be far from you in a region of unlikeness, as though I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….” I said, “Is truth nothing, because it is diffused neither through finite nor through infinite space?” From afar you cried to me, “I am who am.” I heard, as one hears in his heart; there was no further place for doubt.”

I hate his theology, as it seems to have come out to be as a whole, but love his writing, as I find it in its concrete instants. And yes I’m playing around w/ ADHD as a form, have been a good long while, apparently, it’s one of the upsides. Thanks for reading.

On “The Seafarer”

My commentary on “The Seafarer” for Unlikeness. Kinda long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his “Seafarer” for you. At the bottom of the post, there’s a special mp3 treat.


For literary translators of OE – not so much for scholars – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. Indeed, his “Seafarer” is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with Zukofsky’s Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after his must contend with that garrulous maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound wrote of three ways to charge words with poetic meaning: melopoeia (handling sounds), phanopoeia (throwing an image toward the mind’s eye), and logopoeia (setting a word in a new relation to its usage) (ABC 37). Hearing, vision, thought: three sites where one could add by shaping (shared ground of the Greek word for poet, poietes, and the AS word, scop) to the world’s store of meaning by words. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and liberally around thought. Since the three are co-equal in meaning-making – are the three legs of the unwobbling stool the poem is – it is for a poet a perfectly defensible choice.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:

   x   –        x         –    –              –    x    –       x      –
bitre brēostceare          gebiden hæbbe,

   –    x       –     –     x    –                x      –    –    x  –
gecunnad in cēole          cearselda fela,

–   –   x   –    –     x                      –          –     x      –    –
atol ȳþa gewealc,          þǣr mec oft bigeat

    x    –    x         –   –              –      x    –        x      –
nearo nihtwaco          æt nacan stefnan,

   –             –    –      x   –           x     –
þonne hē be clifum cnossað. (4­–8)

(x = primary stress)

    x   –        x            –               x      –  –  x    –
Bitter breast-cares | have I abided,

       x          –       –      x            x    –   –    x           x
Known on my keel | many a care’s hold,

 –          –        x       x                 –           –      –  x         x
And dire sea-surge, | and there I oft spent

    x     –        x            –                x         –        –          x
Narrow nightwatch | nigh the ship’s head

       –         –      –                x        –     x
While she tossed close to cliffs.

He does far more than catch the feel of AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the hemistich. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too. When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the line, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise. When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too. In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved – in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line, and does so because in a given pattern, a given intelligence is to be found, through which articulations not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll call this a rose in the steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS scop, his line and his seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. The image gets its power through the speed of its arrival. In “The Seafarer” Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:

Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan,          þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera;          ful oft þæt earn bigeal
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.

An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image is seen dimly through the latter, the force brought to bear on a whole cliff-face is momentarily concen­trated on the fragile hull of the boat. “In icy feathers” then lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm a sense of something animate, almost delicate; then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own feathers; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feath­ered) spray on the eagle’s own wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the vortex comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, an abortive movement but prelude to the Cantos, and doing in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein worked out in pictures – both of them, as it happens, working from Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, though with Kenner I think Pound got some of his mojo from the Seafarer poet. It’s a lovely montage, one of many here, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It did come though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn, “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the scop‘s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks cities (byrig) into berries.

Bearwas blōstmum nimað,          byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað,          woruld ōnetteð (48-49)

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker

Faithful as a dog to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though we know most of a poem’s meaning is outside its words’ denotations, we’re meaning junkies anyway and cry foul – or fool – when the straitened sense of the dictionary is sidelined. As here:

“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “sur­faces” or “corners”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”

One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? Maybe we can find a reason for any given departure – this one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connec­tive tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back toward what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins – but when we take the glary errors all together, it seems we may have to say, Pound didn’t greatly value the semantic meanings of the poem’s words: not more than the sound matrix they belonged to, anyway, or the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most in the poem so he translated those foremost. Or maybe just on an equal footing with sense, but the loss of sense stands out more to us. Perhaps we forgive or miss a loss of cadence or a diminution of image—those embodied, experiential aspects of the poem—more easily because we are in the end meaning junkies. Perhaps we are as greedy and eager for a paraphrasable meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent meaning, and as ready as he to travel off in mōd from our lived experience to an abstract construction elsewhere.

Where the poem commits fully to its abstract construction – Heaven – Pound makes his boldest change. He stops. He cuts the last 23 lines of the poem, sure they’re the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in thinking so or in wanting to save an original pagan poem from a later Christian overlay. And a number of things do change at this point: The folio ends. So, at the same moment, do the sentence and the larger thought. At the start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in, the Christian content intensifies, and there’s arguably a loss of poetic invention. For these reasons some have concluded that “The Seafarer” ends at the end of 82v, cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on 83r is some other less interesting poem.

But the move to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. Indeed, the shift fits the arc of the poem as a whole and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in a “pure” condition. While that impetus has long since expired, arguments that the poem is composite have not. Pope and Fulk:

[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)

They like the question for being unanswerable, the sort of indeterminacy special to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I am not one not to cheer thrice for indeterminacy. Still, novice and outsider that I am, I see a single poem, a single author. The hypermetric lines are not the first in the poem; the shift to them doesn’t last long; and six-stress lines come and go for no clear reason in a number of other Exeter poems. The switch to preacher voice, as said, fits, indeed completes, the dramatic, emotional, moral, and metaphysical arcs of the poem. What would be odd would be not to go there: you’d expect a poem that forswears the world of the living at some point to leave the life-world behind. And these closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the very last few are sententious, but many other OE poems of the first order have like passages, and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them slightly apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at line 103 is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into question. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of vivid material details that resist the point-for-point calculus of allegory mind – an ice-clotted beard, a mewgull’s cries; and yet accumulating misfires in the seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the voyage with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into an allegorical reading, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. Middle of the last century, Whitelock tried to solve the problem by levelling it: she presented the journey as, despite appearances, literal from start to end, and compiled a body of historical evidence that religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices. It was a persuasive case to many but didn’t end the discussion. Marsden argues the other side: the journey stands for the spiritual pilgrim’s journey from the earthly city to the heavenly city of Augustine. By this reading, the seafarer’s true exile is not his voluntary remove from the towns of women and men, but the distance between him and his “ancestral heavenly home” (221). I am always both-and and to me it seems the poem undergoes a conversion from literal to allegorical: the journey itself metamorphoses: it starts as journey-as-journey and gradually becomes journey-as-trope. Travelling itself travels; it’s a tropic trope; I’ll stop now. But part of its subtlety is, there’s no one point where it can be said to have changed condition. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.

A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon, “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have led some readers to treat the poem as a dialogue. However, as Pope and Fulk point out (99), OE narrative poetry has very formal ways of announcing new speakers, and there are none such here. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living from mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, problem solved. In fact, what’s interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem, in the first place. Belonging to print and internet culture, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Henry James, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In “The Seafarer” oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, I know, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the boy’s mind. So some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the scop’s use of logopoeia in putting the word forþon in a highly charged relation to its ordinary usage. At any rate, the notion that there’s more than one speaker here, which had currency for a while, has by now been discarded.

There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the voice he has been voyaging to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.

And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).